April 27, 2010

The Price of Ambition

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One of my favorite columnists and former Sun Editors, Leigha Kemmett ’10, often writes about people who act pretentiously or have major ego issues, a category which may include Sun columnists. One cannot help but laugh at how pretentious people can act just because they attend an Ivy League institution — or finished their thesis, as Munier Salem ’10 would point out.

(And for the record, computer science majors, and engineers in general, have been spending long nights in our labs and in Duffield long before you thesis writers found yourselves holed up in the Cocktail Lounge at Uris night after night.)

Nonetheless, both Cornell students, Sun columnists and even those thesis writers obviously did something right and made significant sacrifices to end up where they are. For the next wave of students, I would like to discuss the other side of being a columnist or any influential campus figure.

Certainly, although I feel pretentious writing this, I can take pride in my accomplishments. In addition to being a Sun columnist, my resume past and present includes Assistant Web Editor for The Sun, vice-president of the Association of Computer Science Undergraduates, teaching assistant for CS 2110 and working as an intern for two summers at Microsoft, my future place of employment. In addition to this list of titles, I have built a considerable amount of respect and standing among my peers.

Certainly, I can appreciate my success more than others. I did not come from a string of rich alumni who could overnight me money. My parents, a church worker and a preschool teacher, while very supportive, could not write Cornell that One Big Check every year. My first job at Cornell was not some cool programming gig; I started as a humble dining hall worker.

Yet while columnists have a wide audience, mistakes in their columns or unfair critiques get propagated widely. If I make a mistake while teaching a CS 2110 section, my students’ grades could suffer as a result. And while I left The Sun’s web staff for good reasons last fall, I cannot help but feel guilty on account of the burden it put on the remaining staff and the technical issues I could no longer resolve, regardless of whether or not I made the correction decision.

Even unparalleled success can lead to unparalleled expectations, expectations requiring more time and sacrifice to meet. Those who continue to meet expectations, no matter how high they have been set, must avoid overconfidence and understand the limitations of their role, even if they play that role very well. As a Sun columnist and a former debater in high school, I am obviously tempted to do both.

When I would read the columns of Dave Wittenberg ’09, a liberal writer whose style would entertain even the conservatives at The Cornell Review, I would meticulously find all the logical fallacies he committed, pontificating in my mind about how style does not make up for poor arguments. Debaters often use the term “pretty speaker” as a pejorative, not a compliment.

Yet of all the Associate Editors I have worked with, Dave taught me the most. In my younger days, I would sometimes write columns which were well-research, well-argued, but quite frankly a snooze-fest. Not only did Dave help me add stylistic flair to my columns, but sometimes I could boil down a 20-page treatise into a humorous one-liner which made the exact same point.

And even though I must admit that I have enjoyed this columnist gig, at the same time, columnists are ultimately writers, not doers. While writing about the Student Assembly’s community clause, and also attending The Sun’s editorial office hours to discuss The Sun’s written stance on the issue, a crazy thought entered my mind: What if I decided to actually attend a S.A. meeting?

In the end, not only did attending a meeting do more for the cause than a column, but it actually provided plenty of good content for my next column. And while I have a much larger audience on alternate Wednesdays than the Student Assembly has every Thursday, their actions probably will have a bigger impact on readers than even my most brilliant columns. Plus, truth be told, on several occasions, I could work with Student Assembly representatives better than even my fellow Sunnies, even if I called out certain members in my column or they shot down my resolutions and amendments.

So for those aspiring to be the next Sun columnist or a well-known leader in the Cornell community, they should take into account the sacrifice and responsibilities that come with the position.

And if some lifelong dream of yours fails to come to fruition, or if you lost some election you clearly should have won, life will continue. Keep in mind that sometimes the best leaders are the ones you least expect. Jonny Lieberman ’08, an Associate Arts and Entertainment Editor who became a legendary Editor-in-Chief, wrote the book on that one.

As for me, senior year of high school, I had a nice list of accomplishments and positions, and I had a girlfriend, too. Yet in mere weeks, I experienced bitter disappointment in every activity I cared about, and I lost my girlfriend as well. Everything collapsed before me. While I did not sink into depression, needless to say my psyche hit an all-time low. However, by all measures I am doing quite fine today.

Finally, in the tradition of farewell columns, I will explain my moniker, “Wack Attack.” People often call me Wacker instead of Mike. The name has several variations, such as Big Wack (used by friends of my middle brother to distinguish us) and of course Wack Attack. The nickname Wack Attack started in high school. I never used it in college, but people started calling me Wack Attack anyway. I never used it as an intern at Microsoft, but a coworker spontaneously yelled, “Go, Wack Attack!” when I emphatically swatted down a pass in a game of Ultimate Frisbee. Obviously, that put “Wack Attack” on the short list, and when Dave Wittenberg suggested it as a moniker, nothing more needed to be said.

(And while I have no room for the unofficial tradition of a million shout-outs, I will give a shout-out to my pastor, Rev. Robert Foote [no relation to Jeff Foote], who is organizing a huge event next fall for Feed My Starving Children and would love for you to email him at pastor@trinityithaca.com if you can help.)

With that said, my tenure as a columnist finally comes to a close. Perhaps I have some great future ahead of me. Perhaps I do not. One way or another, though, the Wack Attack will be back.

Mike Wacker, a senior in the College of Engineering, is a former Sun Assistant Web Editor. He may be reached at mwacker@cornellsun.com. Wack Attack appears alternate Wednesdays this semester. Over the years Mike Wacker has offered commentary on everything from student politics to the particulars of computer systems, here is a brief survey of his work:

1. Ideological Diversity: A Different Perspective 9/4/2007 (First Column)

2. The Open-Source Buzz 3/10/2010

3. 21: What Does This Mean? 2/24/2009

Original Author: Mike Wacker